The year 2016 was supposed to be one of infinite promise. I turned 19 harboring the secret belief that it was an auspicious age. I ran over the numbers again and again in my head like a gambler. One and nine. It was the year I started college and the year I fell in love for the first time. All through the autumn of 2016 — through my elementary Chinese classes, through rushing a fraternity and going to Communist Party meetings with my roommate — Lizzo’s “Good as Hell” was playing somewhere in the background.
As a freshman student at UC Berkeley, I lived on a queer and trans floor in the residence halls. It was a turbulent but mesmerizing living space, and Lizzo could always be heard through open doorways, from shower stalls, from the courtyard and the floors above. Putting on dark lipstick, learning to walk in high heels, waiting for my first love to pick me up, I would sing the lyrics back to myself. Granted, I didn’t have any hair to toss or nails to check, and the song is more about not needing a man than waiting for one to pick you up, but I held it close. I would hear it and think: “Maybe everything is going to be okay after all.”
Of course, things in 2016 were not OK at all. Trump was elected, my first love and I broke up and a sort of normalized chaos settled across Berkeley like a fire season. And yet I kept waiting for someone to play Lizzo at parties. Kept waiting for a sign that good times were on the horizon.
2019 was also supposed to be a year of promise. I turned 22 believing that it would be a year of rejuvenation. A wellspring of magical thinking. A second coming. I felt intense comfort thinking about my new age in duplicates. Two plus two. All throughout the spring of 2019 — through my elementary Arabic classes, through dancing at White Horse Inn on weeknights and preparing for senior year — Lizzo’s “Juice” was playing somewhere in the background.
In late May, I went to Paris for the first time to visit my sister. She was living in Belleville, running around Le Marais at night with a silver mohawk and taking classes in French Caribbean literature. I stayed in a tiny, smoky room in Pigalle near the Moulin Rouge and spent my days trailing after my sister to palaces, patisseries and outdoor Moroccan restaurants.
My last night in Paris we saw Lizzo perform. She was mesmerizing in a pink glitter jumpsuit, wielding a flute. We ran out of the concert with two giant rainbow-lettered posters rolled into a thin cylinder and tied with a rubber band to take home on the plane. We wandered over to the Seine and sat down along the canal. It was like something out of an old movie. Couples were sitting all along the stone river banks, drinking wine and looking at the lights in the murky water.
And in a burst of excitement, I spun around, sending the posters flying into the Seine. My sister and I stared at each other, the rolled-up posters of Lizzo bobbing on the surface of the water. She fixed me with an immutable glare, telepathically instructing me to fish them out.
“From the river?” I thought back at her.
She raised her eyebrows in response. I climbed down the stone embankment and reached my arm into the water. It was cold for late May but I sloshed around until my fingers closed around the rolled-up cardstock. I pulled the posters out and we frantically unrolled them to inspect the damage. Miraculously the colors hadn’t even begun to run. In fact, they were basically dry — the water sliding off the cardstock like it was glass.
One of the posters now hangs in my dorm room, on the same QT floor where I lived as a freshman and now work as an RA. Every time I see it, I relive all the changes visited upon me in college. Not unlike Lizzo, posing nude against a black backdrop, her name spelled out in rainbow letters, I simultaneously feel more exposed and settled in my queerness.
I cannot look at Lizzo without thinking about the streets of Paris, my sister’s silver mohawk, my first love and I separating at a protest the night Trump was elected. The memories that Lizzo’s music evokes are not organized or cohesive. They are tinged with all the warmth and brokenness that comes with being a young adult. They allow me to be 19 and 22 simultaneously, to slip between time zones, to reach down under the surface of the water and pull out a new self-image, completely dry.
Blue Fay writes the Monday arts & entertainment column on the relationship between art and chaos. Contact him at [email protected].